Operators allowing or pressuring vulnerable employees to work during the COVID-19 pandemic could face HSE prosecution, a leading law firm warned this week.

The warning was made during a webinar on the impact of new government emergency measures to tackle the pandemic on operators’ businesses.

The webinar, organised by law firm Backhouse Jones, which specialises in transport law, tackled questions from operators on how to navigate the new rules around the temporary relaxation of drivers hours, furloughing employees, applying for government loans during the pandemic and vehicle finance holidays.

Answering an enquiry on vulnerable employees, director Jonathan Backhouse said: “There is a major health and safety implication here. If an employer forces an employee who is considered vulnerable to come into work and that employee becomes seriously ill or even dies as a result of the contact that may have occurred at work, then the HSE will in all probability investigate why the employer insisted on them coming in - I accept it can be detrimental for the company and what employers should do is look at the government Time to Pay scheme, loan schemes and extended and deferred payments schemes to mitigate the impact.”

The team also tackled questions on repayment holidays on vehicle lease schemes.

Backhouse said that operators wanting a payment holiday should approach their finance companies as soon as possible.

He added: “This is a commercial issue between operators and their finance companies - it is not a government issue.

“I do know a few companies have been obtaining repayment holidays and that finance companies are set up now to deal with these queries – operators should get on with speaking to them if they want a repayment holiday to see what can be agreed.

“I think finance companies know of the contractual issues out there and will try and be reasonable rather than find themselves in a frustration of contract argument which the finance house may lose ultimately.”

Backhouse also referred to the government’s furlough scheme in which the government will fund 80% of employees’ salaries if they are laid off during the pandemic. But he warned that operators can only use this scheme if employees are laid off and there is no work for them.

“A furloughed employee cannot be working for their employer or anyone else during the period they are furloughed – it is not a way of paying employees who are working - it is a way of paying workers who can’t work but that you don’t want to get rid of because once the pandemic is over you want to get them back,” he said.

The webinar can be accessed on Backhouse Jones’ website: https://www.backhousejones.co.uk/